18 May 2022

Get to Know Class Day Student Speaker Peter James Kiernan

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BOSTON—Peter James Kiernan (MBA 2022) has been selected as the student speaker for Harvard Business School’s (HBS) Class Day celebration, held this year on Wednesday, May 25. Class Day honors graduating students, and typically takes place on the day before the School’s and University’s official graduation ceremonies. It is planned and conducted by a committee of second-year MBA students.

An Albany, NY, hotel room was not where Kiernan had expected to spend winter break his first year at Harvard Business School. But it was where he was needed, and as a former Marine who considers public service part of his DNA, he heeded the call to serve. From that lonely hotel room, Kiernan helped configure the state’s first mass vaccination sites for COVID-19.

Kiernan was, as he laughingly puts it, in the wrong place at the wrong time in early 2020. As the deputy chief of staff to New York’s director of state operations, he was charged with keeping priority projects on track and handling any related crises. A year and a half into his job, the pandemic hit, and he became the point person for the state’s COVID response efforts.

“I remember saying, ‘Surely there is someone more qualified,’ and the response was, ‘Well no, no one who has ever fought a pandemic is still alive,’” recalled Kiernan. Which was how he found himself helping configure policies, restrictions, and shutdowns, setting up the country’s first mass testing sites, and deploying first responders.

Six months later, Kiernan started his first year at HBS. His experiences in New York and six years of prior service in the Marines combined for a firm base of public-sector problem-solving experience. Business school, he thought, could provide balance for the other side of the coin.

“Working in the pandemic made it very clear that with the immense challenges we were facing, despite our expanded emergency powers and ability to deploy resources, we couldn’t solve the problem ourselves,” said Kiernan. “We needed the private sector—manufacturers, hospitals, consultants, labs, pharma companies. All these pieces were critical to the response operation and saving people’s lives. I realized how crucial it was to learn the language of the private sector and business in general.”

Jumping into an uncertain year at HBS, Kiernan was in the perfect position to assist with the School’s pandemic response and bridge the concerns of administrators, health professionals, and students. Happy to finally be in the same city as his fiancée—now his wife—after years of a long-distance romance, he dove into his classes, got to know his classmates, and dedicated that winter to helping his former colleagues establish vaccination sites.

Stressful and uncertain environments were familiar to Kiernan from his time in the Marine Corps. He spent most of his military career in special operations, serving as a scout sniper, Pashto linguist, and deployed to Afghanistan where he consistently had to navigate his way through difficult and ambiguous situations. “The training gives you an incredible amount of self-knowledge including what your breaking point is, and just how far you can go before you hit it,” Kiernan said. “That awareness gives you comfort when facing challenges that push your limits and gives you the confidence to try to solve complex problems.”

As he reflects on the tumultuous past two years, Kiernan is grateful for the camaraderie and insights of his classmates, the support of the HBS community, the lessons learned in and out of classrooms, getting to play a role in both HBS and NY’s COVID responses, and his wife—the sustaining anchor to all these experiences. His excitement for their shared future and the next phase of his career is tempered by the sacrifices he’s seen and experienced on the front lines of public service. He is eager to apply his skills to the world of business and imagines dipping in and out of the private and public sectors throughout his life.

“I have always loved serving my community,” said Kiernan. “I think your career should be the intersection between something you’re passionate about, something you’re good at, and something that makes a difference in society. I’ve learned I enjoy being engaged in these high intensity situations and solving difficult problems. Our country is facing really big challenges. I’m going to spend some time trying to tackle some of them from the other side.”

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 70 open enrollment Executive Education programs and 55 custom programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who make a difference in the world, shaping the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.